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Bees, please

They pollinate. They give us honey and beeswax. They are cool. Professor Art Riegal shares the joys of beekeeping.

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LOCH SHELDRAKE, NY — “Oh, I was always interested in bees,” said Art Riegal. “I saw the beekeepers in their white hooded suits and gloves. To a nine-year-old they looked like astronauts.” This was 1969, and the moon landing was in the news.

The SUNY Sullivan  professor has found in beekeeping a compelling way of life, one he has been able to share with students at the college.

“Like any hobby,” Riegal said, “it can get addictive.”

Consider yourself warned. You can start with one or two hives, as he did eight years ago, and then you add more hives. You grow plants that the bees would like, or pay attention to where you live, to make sure they have the best forage.

You add more hives. You deal with the resulting honey—never taking too much from the bees; they need it too—by giving it to friends. Then you sell some. Then you have a business.

Riegal has taught at the college for over three decades, and cites the addition of Hope Farms to the college’s community involvement as a spur to his beekeeping life.

“It’s agriculture, it’s pollination, and we have 400 acres of this beautiful campus,” he said. “It’s just this rolling pasture… it’s been a resource and a learning lab.

He works with students who are interested in beekeeping and the significant role that bees play in the environment.

Embrace beekeeping

If you want to actually have hives and your own bees, Riegal advises taking a class. (see box; Lackawanna College is offering beekeeping courses.) You can read books and “YouTube is good, but be careful. Sometimes people make [videos] in their first year, and that’s when you make a lot of mistakes.” Inadvertently inaccurate information can get uploaded and it can stay accessible forever, past the time the novice beekeepers have learned better techniques.

Although Riegal both read about beekeeping and watched videos, he also took a class in Kingston. “I consider those two people my mentors,” he said.

And that’s another advantage of a class. You have access to teachers, to experts, and you can reach out with questions.

Because beekeeping has changed over time, and that’s where experts, with their constantly updated knowledge, are invaluable. “There are new pests, like the destructor mite,” Riegal said. “They provide vectors for disease.”

The climate has changed. Local crops and plants (from which bees feed) change. The honey changes alongside them. “We’re very fortunate where we are, no farms spraying pesticides,” he said. So the bees are eating the best food available.

He advises patience and flexibility. “Bees don’t read books,” he said. So expect the unexpected.

There’s another way you can help bees, if you don’t want to keep hives yourself. You can plant bee gardens. “Plant clover,” Riegal said. “Coneflowers, sweet William, goldenrod and aster.”

You can also talk to your local farm and garden store for plants that would keep the local bee population healthy and happy and fed.

Educating the bee-friendly

Although right now SUNY Sullivan bee education is restricted to students, Riegal enjoys talking bees, having booths at events like Narrowsburg’s Honeybee Festival, educating people about the importance of bees and how we can play a role in their continued existence.

“The kids were fascinated,” he said of a past festival. Actual bees were part of the booth and maybe a major draw. “Kids would watch these bees, and not one sting at all. Honeybees are gentle if you’re not threatening them. Bees just go about their business,” even if that business is teaching the next generation of humans about their critical role in the environment.

For all its importance, being a beekeeper “can be relaxing,” Riegal said. “I sit in a chair and listen to them hum.”

The awesome bee

Honeybees (Apis mellifera) aren’t native to the United States, Riegal said. “Indigenous tribes called them ‘white men’s flies,’ because [when the] colonies spread [and bees were spotted], the natives knew that settlers weren’t far behind.”

Honeybees are social. They live in colonies with a single queen, who lives two or three years long, Riegal said. She leaves the hive to go to—no joke—the “drone congregation area,” where the male bees hang out and wait for queens to stop by. “That’s how she gets different genetic material,” he explained. Even bees don’t want to become inbred.

The worker bees work. “They clean the hive; clean out the dead bees, if any; they nurse larva; they feed the queen; collect nectar; guard the entrance of the hive.” They’re also all female.

So where are the males? Called drones, “they just eat,” said Riegal. “Then they go out to mate. Then they die.”

(Go ahead. Get the jokes out of your system. Come back when you’re done.)

Keep in mind, without drones, there wouldn’t be any more bees. A hive doesn’t need many of them. And in the winter, the hive needs none at all. “In the fall,” said Riegal, “the females throw them out.”

At the drone congregation area, the queen collects her lifetime supply of bee sperm, which she takes home. From that supply she makes more bees, choosing whether to produce males or females. (Drones all kicked out the previous fall? Just make more!)

Pollination matters

Bees and other pollinators play a significant role in increasing food security, improving nutrition and fighting hunger, said the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

This is how bees feed us:

Three out of four crops across the globe that produce fruits or seeds for human use as food depend, at least in part, on pollinators.

Improving pollinator density and diversity boosts crop yields—pollinators affect 35 percent of global agricultural land, supporting the production of 87 of the leading food crops worldwide.

Pollinators are under threat—sustainable agriculture can reduce risk to pollinators by helping to diversify the agricultural landscape and making use of ecological processes as part of food production.

Safeguarding bees safeguards biodiversity: the vast majority of pollinators are wild, including over 20,000 species of bees.

Source: The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, https://www.fao.org.

Cranky bees

At the SUNY Sullivan apiary, there’s a lot of room, so  “people can stay away from the bees if they’re concerned,” Riegal said.

Honeybees are less aggressive, but they’ll still defend their hives and the bees can get sour-tempered if they lack a queen, he said.

Or maybe a predator has been at the hive and they’re upset. Or “robber bees” from other colonies have been hassling the hive.

Often the solution is simple: fix the problem. Get a queen. Protect the hive from predators.

Then you’ll have happy bees again.

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